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Viv woke up early. Yan brought her a breakfast made of large fried eggs with a gooey blue center, fried dough sticks and a porridge, as well as her clothes now freshly cleaned and smelling of flowers. It felt good to be perfectly clean.

 

The brothel’s lobby was not empty, even early in the morning. She came across an amazon of a woman with braided dark hair, in a gambeson, who gave her a light bow. There was also a rich-looking young man who openly ogled her when he thought she was not looking. Yan took her two silver talents and sent her on her way, with a muscular male [whore] dragging the sled behind him as if it weighed nothing.

 

They climbed up towards the elevation at the center of the village where the large tree stood. She stopped just as she reached it, amazed by the view.

 

The tree was massive. Not old oak massive, baobab massive. Redwood massive. It dominated this part of the town with its presence, and even now she could see a constellation of purple buds blossoming on every twig. Titanic boughs as large as normal trunks bent under the awesome weight. The air smelled incredibly pure, like a mountain at dawn.

 

Ok, so the world was populated with undead abominations that stank like dumpster juice, but at least this made it worth it.

 

The [whore] gave her a light smile. He said something about ‘morning’ and ‘look’ that she didn't quite catch, then blushed. She tapped his shoulder to show support, before inspecting the buildings that surrounded the tree itself.

 

They had clearly reached the heart of the city, where the upper crust, such as it was, conducted its business. The buildings here were made of real, carved stone with an effort to be more than just four walls and a roof. The variety of architectural styles spoke of a city built by migrants.

 

The first building to her immediate left was a square compound centered around an inner courtyard, a bit like the brothel actually, but with only one floor and significantly larger. A statue of a tall bearded man in conical helmet and scaled armor guarded the entrance. His eyes shimmered a deep golden color, and seemed to be following her. She would have sworn that he was alive if he were not so obviously made out of stone.

 

[Statue of Neriad (enchanted), made of marble. Very heavy. Recent.]

 

The building had only one entrance. It had a sober, ancient greek feel to it. A single inscription stood over the main gate in bold letters.

 

‘Temple of Neriad.’

 

The boy with her pointed a finger at her destination.

 

“Temple of Neriad, yes, I know,” she interrupted her small Captain Obvious before he could attempt to communicate. She was not done yet.

 

The next building was square and compact, with three floors. Rows of columns were the only thing that saved it from basic brutalism, and the reason for such a dense configuration became clear when she read the name engraved on the facade.

 

‘Manipeloso bank and exchange, Kazar branch’

 

Convenient.

 

On the other side of the tree, she spotted a sprawling complex with no specific name. It looked like someone had started from a normal house and added wings as needed. It was probably the mayor’s house and town hall. The last significant structure was a tower guarded by a daunting enchanted steel door at its base. It was closed. She surmised that it might be the domain of the esteemed lady Varska. She apparently did not take visitors.

 

Her companion dragged the sled inside of the courtyard, which was currently deserted. She noticed crates set against a wall as well as a pair of wood dummies ravaged by hours of practice. There were three doors leading further into the building. She could hear the hubbub of conversation on her left, but her guide pointed forward.

 

“Farren talk.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

She took out her purse from one of the recesses of her cloak and removed two bits.

 

“For you,” she told the flustered young man. He tried to refuse, at first, but she simply closed his large fist around the rectangular coins. She was not done. She took an iron talent and walked to the sled, before pinching and raising the edge of a grey towel.

 

“For this,” she added.

 

“Squee!”

 

“I’m covering for you, you little thief!”

 

“Squee.”

 

Arthur had decided to plump her nest by ‘acquiring’ new fluffy material. Viv had only just realized it. She would have to set boundaries for her companion and was really not looking forward to that.

 

The muscular youngling nodded, took the talent and left promptly. The bits had already disappeared somewhere.

 

She left the sled behind, and entered the central building. Inside, she found a temple.

 

That was a bit of a disappointment as she expected a lobby. Ah, well.

 

The vast room contained pews encircling yet another statue of Neriad. This one was man-sized and painted beautifully to show golden eyes and hair. The statue knelt in contemplation with one hand on the hilt of a two-handed sword. On either side of the room, several doors led to private prayer rooms with tiny altars, candles, and roof openings that let in the morning light. A lone man in robe was sweeping the ground, wearing robes with an insignia showing a two-handed sword in front of a shield.

 

“Excuse me,” she asked, “I am looking for Branchmaster Farren.”

 

“I am sure you are,” the man replied without stopping.

 

“And where may I find him?”

 

He sighed. This was going to be a pain. Her interlocutor was a weasel of a man of indeterminate age.

 

[Deacon, not dangerous, follows a path that focuses on the preservation of a sacred site and the care of the believer.]

 

“You mercenaries always think that you have a right for everything, don’t you? The branch master is busy now.”

 

“Is he? And when will he be available?”

 

“He is available when he is available. I suggest that you wait in the cafeteria with the rest of your kind.”

 

“Do tell, deacon, do you perhaps have an inspection skill?”

 

She remembered that it required reaching a certain threshold, so not everyone must have it. Cernit had it, but he was clearly a cut above the rest. So did that Tars woman and Yan, but again, their jobs required a certain finesse. Apparently, being a deacon did not.

 

“No, I do not,” he replied between gritted teeth, his attention now firmly on her.

 

“Then how do you presume to know how busy the branch master is?”

 

She removed her letter of recommendation from her bag and shoved it under the man’s nose.

 

“Get this to him promptly.”

 

The deacon grabbed the letter and read the title. His expression scrunched in further displeasure.

 

“What is this about?”

 

“It’s about you understanding that you will move on and comply if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life sweeping the floor.”

 

Antagonising the doorman often backfired. Viv decided that she had to impose herself or risk setting a bad precedent. Casters were dangerous, therefore, they were arrogant. She had to be arrogant as well. Also, assholes with a modicum of power pissed her off and she had the means to shut him down. So there.

 

She expected a grudging acceptance. Instead, the deacon paled noticeably as something pulsed within her core. It was not quite what she recognized as mana. It was something else, something that touched in her the part that was wounded: her soul.

 

Intimidation: Intermediate 2

 

Ah, yes, so that was how it could be used. She had never consciously triggered the skill before. It would prove useful.

 

“If you raise your hand against me in the house of Neriad, no land on Param will be safe for you,” the man stated with a quavering voice.

 

“You are a fool if you think I need to raise a hand to make your life miserable. We are done. Off you go.”

 

That intimidation thing went a little too far. It was too late anyway, she had to own it now. She was a black witch for fuck sake, what was the point of all that awesome power if she could not terrify the average muppet?

 

“Please wait in the mess hall, I will convey your message.”

 

The scared man trotted away. She turned around and left the temple behind, then turned right. Something told her that the mess hall was the place where all those voices sounded.

 

So, apparently she was right.

 

Viv entered a well-lit room filled with round tables and a few long, square ones that would have looked at home in a banquet. Like most furniture here, they were made of unvarnished dark wood. A smattering of people laid in groups of no more than three, all sitting in comfortable poses with a tense undertone that screamed ‘Look at me, I’m not scared, I’m just keeping an eye on you.’ They were a variety of armors that looked second-hand, but no weapons larger than a dagger. As she entered, all eyes fixed on her. A few people leaned in to talk excitedly with their neighbour.

 

Viv barely noticed as her attention zeroed in on a lone form sitting sadly against the back wall, swirling a cup of klod. Now, the men and women present had green-tinged skin that ranged from very light cucumber to slightly darker cucumber, and the brown hair typical of the Param ethnic groups. They still displayed interesting differences from one group to another.

 

Except for that one woman against the wall, because she was not human.

 

Her olympic swimmer shoulders and dark locks were still believable. The yellow eyes and reddish skin were not. Her ears were also larger and rounder than a human’s, which would have been sort of cute if they were not pierced and filled with ghastly bone ornaments. The strange woman’s traits were also large, and when she opened her mouth in surprise, it revealed large, flat teeth.

 

[Kark Shield Maiden, dangerous, follows a warrior’s path focused on defensive fighting.]

 

Kark, huh?

 

One of the men addressed her. He was the only person wearing full chainmail armor under a brown leather surcoat, showing some wealth. He was also twirling a thin moustache like an opera villain. The skin on his cheeks was scarred and pitted.

 

He said something about beast and Kark. And stench. Viv did not understand but it did not sound very nice. She was not sure, though.

 

“I do not speak your language,” she told him. It was not a rebuke, and yet the man saw it as one, especially after another prick in leather armor jeered from the other side of the room.

 

Not friends, then.

 

Viv walked up to the left, where empty glasses waited on a table with a pot of warm liquid. She helped herself to some more local cereal tea, still klod apparently, before sitting down at a lone table. No sooner was she down that the Kark woman stood up and made a beeline towards her. She stopped a meter away from the table, whereupon Viv politely waited for her to initiate the conversation. In vain. Her guest opened and closed her mouth with hesitation, and Viv learned much from the simple interaction. The woman was a bit shy around humans. The woman was socially awkward. The woman acted before she could think. Those were all secondary to the one most important factor that jumped to her mind like the sight of a discounted Hermes square.

 

The woman was desperate.

 

Viv could taste it in the teary eyes, on the sallow traits that spoke of continuous hunger, and on the fumbling fingers. She could see it from the pieced together armor repaired with thread and faith. She could hear it in the hasty breath. The Kark woman was at the end of her wits, and she had jumped at Viv with the thoughtless urge of a drowning woman grabbing a buoy.

 

Viv remembered Clarice, then, a friend she had made when she was thirteen. Clarice had been adopted from Sri Lanka, and she struggled to fit in. She was also a brilliant girl with excellent scores and little else. Viviane Saint-Lys had taken the isolated Clarice Thomassin under her wing because even then she could detect how valuable an asset she would be, and how much the puppy love would bind her.

 

Clarice had helped Vivane with school projects, and in return, Viviane had helped Clarice with making friends, and not looking like she had been catapulted through the discount rack of a low-end mall clothes store after every shower. Their relationship had been symbiotic. Their friendship had only faltered after Clarice was accepted in HEC, a prestigious business school, their bonds kept artificially alive through social network messages. It had been an eternity ago, and it was happening again.

 

The Kark woman was a lost soul craving attachment, Viv could feel it, and so she gave a polite smile and a greeting.

 

“Hello,” she started in the deadly silence of the stunned assembly, “Viviane,” she added, while pointing to her chest.

 

“Viviane,” the woman repeated with flawless pronunciation.

 

Viviane, with two Vs! Like victorious vindication!

 

“You’re fucking hired,” Viv mumbled in her metaphorical beard.

 

“I am Marruk,” the Kark woman replied, “and you — something — shield? Yes? I am strong!”

 

“Do you speak Old Imperial?”

 

“Not understand...”

 

Viv invited the shieldmaiden to sit and then asked her to wait. Whatever arrangement the woman wanted, it did not concern the other mercenaries present here. She had an inkling that they were not fans of competition. More importantly, they gave a bad vibe, and Viv trusted her instincts.

 

After ten minutes or so, the sniveling deacon returned and asked for her presence with the face of someone who smelled a particularly pungent turd.

 

Viv invited Marruk to follow her with a gesture that the heavyset Kark understood easily. They made their way through the temple, then back into a large alley peppered with closed doors. The place was mostly silent, and they did not come across anyone.

 

Their guide knocked onto the largest door at the end, then left with one last venomous glare.

 

“Come in,” a smooth voice said.

 

Viv signaled Marruk to stay there and entered the sanctum of her potential employer. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the youth now sitting behind an elaborate desk overburdened with scrolls and envelopes.

 

[Voice of Neriad, not dangerous, follows a path dedicated to the promotion of church interest, including diplomacy and administration. Smart.]

 

It occurred to her that the inspection skill only referred to someone’s immediate ability to turn her into mincemeat, or well-done human kebab, when it mentioned dangerous or not. She had no doubt that opposing a voice of Neriad would only end poorly in the long run.

 

For one moment, she considered that he might not be as young as he appeared, and yet there was something in his traits that betrayed a certain vulnerability that even competence and self-confidence could not hide. He was not yet jaded.

 

Viv took all of this in, only hesitating for a few moments before stepping up to a seat that had been left for her. It was bare and looked rather uncomfortable.

 

“Can I trouble you to speak Old Imperial?” she asked as she sat down, “I have not learned the vernacular yet.”

 

“Certainly. You must be Bibiane then, though the brave lieutenant warned me that he could not pronounce your name properly.”

 

“Bob is fine.”

 

She did not care because Marruk could say it. She could say Viviane. And that was glorious.

 

“I find it curious that the reports from two of my subordinates could be so radically different?”

 

“You mean, the heroic knight I fought side by side with for weeks and your rude doorkeeper?” she asked.

 

Branch master Farren frowned in a way that showed he knew exactly what she implied.

 

“Cernit informs me that you seek employment, and also that you are uniquely suited to slaying the undead. He is… quite vocal in his esteem of your personality and contribution. It feels almost too much.”

 

“Lieutenant Cernit is a man of honor and he survived because I was there. He is certainly trying to repay me by, perhaps, embellishing some of what happened?”

 

“Can you truly kill a gut spiller in one spell?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Clearly, the voice of Neriad did not expect such a direct answer. His brows rose in surprise.

 

“Well, color me impressed. And you… do really wish to work with the church?”

 

“There is something I need,” she says.

 

“Of course there is…” the man replies, leaning back into his seat, “let’s hear it then.”

 

“My soul is wounded. I need expert help to heal it.”

 

Surprise twisted the Voice’s features for the second time.

 

“A wounded soul, you say? Are you quite sure?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Extraordinary. A very rare and peculiar ailment, yes. Why, I believe that very few cases exist as people tend to… die immediately. You will require the help of some of the most talented healers on Param and beyond.”

 

“Yes. Perhaps we could help each other?”

 

“Indeed. Hmmm. A complex request. You see, I could get you committed to life in an asylum where you would be taken care of in comfort, if that were your wish. But you want to be healed. The time investment in dealing with unique and complex wounds… Let me think. Hmmm.”

 

Viv appreciated that he considered her request seriously instead of just agreeing and have future Farren find an actionable way to help her. It boded well for their future cooperation.

 

“Hmmm. Yes, this could work. Indeed! Very well, Bob, I see a way for us to help each other. I assume that you do not wish to join the church permanently?”

 

“No.”

 

“Then I could name you as a major contributor to our holy fight, but you would need to be consistently effective. Achieve a few important contributions. If what Cernit says is true, you have already started by stopping not one, but three necromancers with only a tiny garrison. Impressive! I have a few missions in mind that could be carried out with someone of your talent. You will be generously compensated for your efforts, of course. Would that be agreeable?”

 

“That sounds good.”

 

“Now, we only need to find you a proper team to provide protection.”

 

“Ah speaking of which, I met this… Kark woman, Marruk?”

 

Farren’s expression switched from excited to guarded in an instant.

 

“Marruk is in good standing with the church, if you have complaints about non-humans—”

 

“No! No… I merely wanted to know more about her, since she apparently wants to be my shield. Unfortunately, she does not speak Old Imperial.”

 

“Oh! Oh, well, this is unusual. Let me think. Marruk is a female Kark who recently left her tribe, or rather what remains of it. The Kark are undergoing hardships recently, and I do not know which one of us is more to blame. Them, or us.”

 

“Humanity is at war with them?”

 

“Not humanity. Many of the Northern Free cities have coalesced into an alliance of interest called the Pure League… Ah, I have no time for a history lesson. Suffice to say, she does not deserve the abuse the local mercenaries have forced her to undergo. As for an agreement with her, you can expect her to fulfill her promises. In fact, the Kark do their best to fulfill their promises. A bit too much, sometimes. You will not regret giving her a chance.”

 

Viv noticed that Farren grew more animated as he spoke of the towering woman. He was strangely defensive of her. She decided to pry.

 

“You appear to care about her,” she stated.

 

The branch master’s expression turned, once again, guarded. He guaged her reaction, and Viv did her best to appear innocuous. Perhaps he was concerned about Viv using the information to her advantage, somehow? Perhaps Kark lover was a slur in Param.

 

“The Church of Neriad welcomes all who fight to keep the darkness at bay, regardless of origin. The scriptures encourage us to regard heart above appearance. I have had difficulties convincing the locals of that.”

 

“I understand. I have no objection to working with her, I am merely concerned about the language barrier.”

 

“Do you wish to strike an agreement? I can translate for you.”

 

Viv jumped on the offer and Marruk was soon invited to join them. Farren took the time to go to a nearby office to find an extra chair for the Kark to sit before he would begin. Viv found his attention touching. The simple gesture flustered the massive woman too, and she did her best to appear smaller.

 

Viv started the negotiation by asking exactly what Marruk had in mind. She mentioned that, though she could use someone to watch her back during missions, she could also use a bodyguard when going around town. Someone who would guarantee her safety full time. She had several reasons for doing so.

 

First, one of the lessons the Baranese had shown her was that a caster was most dangerous when free to act, and that meant being protected from the imminent threat of dismemberment.

 

Second, although the town was reasonably safe, that could change if the locals realized that she was absolutely fucking loaded.

 

Third, Viv was a recent graft on a living society that she was unfamiliar with. Things were pretty mild since no one had yet tried to enslave, rape, rob, or kill her yet, and she knew parts of her own world that were much worse. It did not change the fact that she was a new player on an old board, rife with alliances and grudges that ran as deep as the root of their massive tree. It would pay to get close to the only other clear outsider here, even if Marruk felt loyalty towards Farren as well.

 

Marruk babbled something in a raspy tongue that Viv did not understand at all. The shieldmaiden kept stealing glances towards Viv’s relaxed form. Viv guessed here and there that Marruk was a shit negotiator. Her suspicions were confirmed a moment later.

 

“Marruk agrees to be your shield in battle and strongwoman outside, if you agree to treat her as such. That means you do not force her into sex and you do not use her as a maid. You will also provide enough food, and lodging, as well as… a silver a week.”

 

Viv’s focus clasped on that small hesitation like a bloodhound to a wounded deer’s leg.

 

“What did she really ask for?” she demanded.

 

Farren sighed.

 

“Can I trust you?”

 

“I have no intention of harming Marruk, if that is what you asked.”

 

“Not what I meant. The Kark take their agreement very seriously and some tend to abuse that trust, and it so happens that the girl is… desperate. No team will take her. She is on the brink.”

 

“She is broke?”

 

“We have secretly fed her for the past ten days for free, by pretending that we provide this service to anyone. We do not. She would not accept charity otherwise. Listen, she asked for an iron talent per week, but that’s just slavery. I can only ask you to treat her well. Do so, and I will personally consider it a favor. Different species working together for the common good is our sort of thing.”

 

“That’s fine. A silver a week to start, and I’ll increase it to three if she proves herself during the next month. Food and lodging. I’ll help her get gear if she needs it. Does she have a black mana repellent cloak?”

 

“No, but I can sell you one at a discount.”

 

“Ok, good. She gets one day of break per week provided that we are in town. Deal?”

 

Farren relayed her proposal. The Kark woman looked at her with abject hope tinted with suspicion. Viv could not blame her. From her perspective, it was perhaps too good to be true.

 

“Deal.”

 

They shook on it.

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